Home featured Daniel Prude Was in ‘Mental Distress.’ Police Treated Him Like a Suspect.

Daniel Prude Was in ‘Mental Distress.’ Police Treated Him Like a Suspect.

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ROCHESTER, N.Y. — One officer wrote in his arrest report that he knew that Daniel Prude had been “previously suicidal” before his disastrous encounter with police and had spent hours a day earlier in a psychiatric ward.

Police body-camera footage shows that after officers restrained Mr. Prude, they stood around him, smiling and laughing as he made delusional comments. He could be seen shouting incoherently as he lay naked, handcuffed and hooded, in the street on a frigid night.

A lieutenant later acknowledged in internal police documents that Mr. Prude had “acted in a fashion consistent with an individual in some form of mental distress.”

The death of Mr. Prude, who suffocated after three officers placed the hood over his head, has intensified scrutiny of the police treatment of Black people, touching off weeks of protests and official soul-searching in this Rust Belt city of 206,000 on Lake Ontario.

Credit…Roth and Roth LLP, via Associated Press

But it has also highlighted another deep-seated problem in many police departments: Armed police officers, intensely drilled in techniques to subdue violent suspects, often seem ill-equipped to deal with people who are mentally ill or in a drug-induced delirium.

Around the country, the Prude case has helped to galvanize the debate over police department training — and whether resources and responsibility for these kinds of cases should be diverted from the police to mental health professionals. Supporters of the movement to defund the police have embraced that shift, but so have others who are opposed to deep cuts in police budgets.

“Every police department in the country should watch the video and try to ask themselves, how could the incident be handled differently,” said Chuck Wexler, executive director of the Police Executive Research Forum, which seeks to improve policing. “These are traditionally the most difficult calls for the police.”

Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo urged police departments late last month to respond to the Prude case by working more closely with mental health and substance abuse experts.

“People are dying,” Mr. Cuomo said. “That’s a fact. When all you have is a gun and a badge and the ability to arrest, that’s your only solution to that issue.”

ImageProtesters in Rochester demand that clinicians and social workers, not police officers, be the first to respond to calls about people in a mental health crisis.
Credit…Joshua Rashaad McFadden for The New York Times

“Redesign your public safety plan,” he said, addressing local governments.

Lawyers for the seven officers involved in Mr. Prude’s arrest said on Thursday that the officers knew Mr. Prude had taken phencyclidine, or PCP, and as a result they thought some techniques employed with mentally ill people would not work.

“Many in the media and elsewhere have cast this incident as a mental health event. It was not,” said Matthew Rich, a lawyer for four of the officers. “It was an event that involved the use of a dangerous drug with very serious side effects.”

Still, internal police documents show that from the moment that the officers responded to the 911 call on March 23, they knew that they were dealing with a so-called mental hygiene case involving a person who had not committed a serious crime but instead seemed to be experiencing a psychotic episode.

Mr. Prude had bolted from his brother’s home in nothing but a tank top and long johns after taking PCP — also known as angel dust — which causes hallucinations, his brother, Joe Prude, told the police, according to the internal documents.

But police body-camera footage and written reports indicate that the officers did little to try to soothe Mr. Prude as he grew increasingly frantic after his arrest. The officers did not call for mental health professionals to respond to the scene. Nor did they offer him a blanket or put him in a police car for warmth, though he had stripped off his clothes and was naked.

The officers instead ordered him to lie on his stomach, and he complied, according to body camera footage and police reports. Pointing a Taser, one officer told Mr. Prude to “Chill out, man, don’t move, all right man?” before handcuffing him with relative ease at 3:16 a.m.

For three minutes, Mr. Prude made delusional comments as the officers stood around him. Then he sat upright and yelled, “Give me that mask, man!” and spat on the ground.

An officer responded by putting a so-called spit hood over Mr. Prude’s head from behind, which seemed to increase his panic.

“That would scare anybody, even someone in their right mind,” said Melanie Funchess, an official with a Rochester nonprofit that provides mental health services.

Credit…Joshua Rashaad McFadden for The New York Times

The footage showed that one officer pressed Mr. Prude’s hooded head down, apparently trying to get him to be less agitated, while a second pressed down on his back and a third pinned down his legs.

Shortly after, Mr. Prude went into cardiac arrest before he was taken away by an ambulance.

Four weeks after Mr. Prude’s March 30 death, a police internal investigation cleared the officers — and said nothing about whether they were properly trained in how to handle an emotionally disturbed person or someone suffering from mental illness.

The investigation concluded that the officers’ actions “appear to be appropriate and consistent with their training.” The officers, the investigation noted, had all recently been certified in “defensive tactics” and “ground control” techniques.

The seven officers involved in the Prude case were suspended last month, but only after the police body-camera footage was made public by Mr. Prude’s family.

The Rochester Police Department declined repeated requests to discuss the training that officers receive on mental health. The Rochester police chief at the time of the Prude encounter, La’Ron Singletary, has denied that police officers did anything wrong. He was dismissed last month by the city’s mayor, Lovely Warren.

Ms. Warren, a Democrat whose leadership has come scrutiny in recent weeks, was indicted on Oct. 2 on two unrelated felony campaign charges tied to when she was running for a second term in 2017.

Training manuals in Rochester do not specify under what circumstances officers are allowed to use a spit hood, a loose breathable fabric sack that can be placed over a person’s head to prevent biting or spitting.

The city and county do have mental health professionals on call whom the Rochester police can summon in such situations, but it is not mandatory for officers to do so.

“They were not dispatched,” said Willie Lightfoot Jr., chairman of the City Council’s Public Safety Committee. “I don’t know why. I am looking for answers.”

The four lawyers representing the officers said they had followed their training precisely, using pinning techniques designed to avoid blocking airways and waiting for an ambulance as they had been taught to do in such cases. They added that mental health experts do not usually accompany officers on such calls.

The lawyers said that because their clients knew Mr. Prude was high on PCP, they relied on common physical maneuvers used to control people on drugs rather than softer methods like talking, which are often employed in mental hygiene calls.

The officers had also been taught that PCP can cause a body to overheat, so putting a blanket over Mr. Prude “would had done more harm than good,” said James Nobles, a lawyer for one of the officers.

The officers put a hood over Mr. Prude’s head to protect themselves from possible exposure to the coronavirus, but the hood’s mesh fabric should not have impeded Mr. Prude’s breathing.

“You can see through it, you can hear through it, you can breathe through it,” Mr. Nobles said, donning a so-called spit-sock at a news conference. “I can breathe better through this than I can through any mask that I’ve worn to prevent the coronavirus.”

The lawyers asked that the officers be reinstated. “We offer our sympathies to the family of Mr. Prude, but the officers involved in this incident did not cause his death,” Mr. Rich said.

Michael Mazzeo, president of the union representing about 700 Rochester officers, said that after viewing police footage of the arrest, he believed that the officers appear to have followed training protocols.

Mr. Mazzeo added that if training needs to change, “then change it. But don’t blame the officers.”

But Cedric Alexander, a former deputy police chief in Rochester, said the body camera footage demonstrated that the officers mishandled the arrest.

“Once they got him secured, and clearly he was having some crisis, they really should have gotten him off the ground, gotten him into that vehicle, and then taken him immediately into a mental health facility for evaluation,” Mr. Alexander said.

Mr. Alexander said he helped design a police training program for responding to the mentally ill in the early 2000s in Rochester. By 2006, the department also had about 45 volunteers who had undergone several hours of training in handling the mentally unstable.

The training centered on three principles: engage in soft-spoken conversation, de-escalate the situation and transport the person to a mental health facility.

Under the program, violent encounters between police and local residents in distress fell to “almost zero,” said Eric Weaver, a retired sergeant who supervised many of the mental health calls and now teaches similar techniques to other departments. He is the author of “Overcoming the Darkness,” about his own struggles with mental illness.

But Mr. Alexander, who is also a clinical psychologist, said the Rochester police placed less importance on the training after he and Mr. Weaver stepped down from the department in the mid-2000s.

“We left the playbook to continue this program,” he said. “It is clear that that never took place.”

Last month, after the footage of Mr. Prude’s arrest gained national attention, Rochester officials announced plans to form crisis intervention teams that would include clinicians and social workers and would respond to calls of people under mental stress and determine if the police are needed. Other cities have started using similar teams with some success, including Denver; Olympia, Washington; and Eugene, Oregon.

“We’re trying to work and move into a direction where what happened to the Prude family will never happen again,” Councilman Lightfoot said.

In New York City, 16,000 officers have gone through a four days of “crisis intervention training” since 2015, including role playing, lectures and conversations with individuals with mental illness who have had encounters with the police. (The training was suspended this year after the department faced pandemic-related budget cuts.)

Officials with the New York State’s Division of Criminal Justice Services said recruits in cities like Rochester are required to take a 20-hour course titled “the Fundamentals of Crisis Intervention,” where they learn how to minimize the use of force during mental health calls.

Phillip Atiba Goff, founder of the Center for Policing Equity, a think tank at Yale University, said that while training can help, most officers are ill-equipped to make the right decisions when confronted with mentally ill people.

“There is no way you can train police officers well enough that they can be frontline mental health workers, especially crisis mental health workers,” Mr. Goff said. “It’s very clear that if there had been a medical expert there, there also would’ve been different treatment and a different response.”

Troy Closson contributed reporting. Sheelagh McNeill contributed research.

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